Turn of the Century

The Election of 1900 w. Stephen Kinzer

November 10, 2020 Joseph Hawthorne
Turn of the Century
The Election of 1900 w. Stephen Kinzer
Chapters
Turn of the Century
The Election of 1900 w. Stephen Kinzer
Nov 10, 2020
Joseph Hawthorne

After a contentious race and victory in our current election, we are now looking back on the events surrounding the 1900s election. Steven dives into the narrow ratification of the treaty of Paris, the politics of imperial and non-imperialist, and the beginning of the loss of innocence in the American culture. We are pleased to have you join us for part 2 of our interview with Steven Kinzer.  


Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. Kinzer spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. His foreign postings placed him at the center of historic events and, at times, in the line of fire.


In 2006 Kinzer published Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. It recounts the 14 times the United States has overthrown foreign governments. Kinzer seeks to explain why these interventions were carried out and what their long-term effects have been. In 2017 Kinzer published The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire. It describes America’s first great debate over military intervention abroad.

Show Notes Transcript

After a contentious race and victory in our current election, we are now looking back on the events surrounding the 1900s election. Steven dives into the narrow ratification of the treaty of Paris, the politics of imperial and non-imperialist, and the beginning of the loss of innocence in the American culture. We are pleased to have you join us for part 2 of our interview with Steven Kinzer.  


Stephen Kinzer is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has covered more than 50 countries on five continents. Kinzer spent more than 20 years working for the New York Times, most of it as a foreign correspondent. His foreign postings placed him at the center of historic events and, at times, in the line of fire.


In 2006 Kinzer published Overthrow: America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. It recounts the 14 times the United States has overthrown foreign governments. Kinzer seeks to explain why these interventions were carried out and what their long-term effects have been. In 2017 Kinzer published The True Flag: Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain, and the Birth of the American Empire. It describes America’s first great debate over military intervention abroad.


Joseph Hawthorne

0:10

This is our second conversation with Stephen Kinzer. As I mentioned before, he's an award winning foreign correspondent, worked at the New York Times for two decades. He's now as a senior fellow at the Watson school at Brown, and has published many books, including two that we're focusing on today, overthrow America's century of regime change from Hawaii to Iraq, and more recently, the true flag, Theodore Roosevelt, Mark Twain and the birth of American Empire. Welcome back, Stephen, to be back with you. So we left off before on a big cliffhanger, we were talking about the debate over the Treaty of Paris and what would happen to Spain's colonial possessions, whether they would be allowed to go free or some kind of American rule to be determined later, you want to finish where you started, what happened at the debate in Congress about whether to ratify that Treaty of Paris.

SK

Stephen Kinzer

1:06

This debate, as I said, shines as a highlight of American rhetorical brilliance. It's full of references to ancient Rome and ancient Persia, you hear references to Pliny the Elder, and things that you would never even dare to bring up with a US Senator today. I think, as I began to realize, when I researched the book that one reason for this was that during that era, every learned person had read Gibbons book, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. And therefore, during this debate in Congress over the future role the United States in the world, many members of the Senate, were saying, we're only going to share the fate of Rome and go down if we try to expand too far. Others would say no, but the lesson of the given book is actually different. It is that Rome was able to spread its influence and its civilizing power over such a wide area. So they had a common frame of reference rooted in the classics. It's a fascinating debate to listen to. Now. Unfortunately, like all congressional debates, it was not conducted entirely on the level of brilliant rhetoric and deep theoretical thought. There were also a lot of political deals being made. One senator who was a lame duck emerged as with the power to name all the postmasters in his home state. Another got the chance to name the federal judges from the state and other became a federal judge. So a lot of deals are made in order to assure that the treaty would be passed. But even despite all of that, the treaty only passed with a margin of one vote more than the two thirds majority. So with that, with that narrow margin, the United States set off on the course of overseas Empire. Now, there's a footnote to this after flash forward a little bit into the future, just a couple of years later, the anti imperialist didn't give up after this crushing defeat, and after the United States Senate, did agree to seize the Philippines and all these other territories. One of the techniques that the anti imperialists used was to challenge the constitutionality of American colonialism. Their argument was, it says in the Constitution, that the government does not have any powers that are not explicitly granted to it here in this document. And there is nowhere in this document. It says, the United States has the right to rule over foreign peoples on the other side of the earth, especially if it does not give them the rights that are guaranteed in the Constitution. If we expand our rule, we must expand the guarantees that we give to all people under a rule. Well, that would be impossible for imperialist, you could not allow Cubans to have the right to free speech and free press and protest and the right to petition for redress of grievances are Filipinos to have those rights, because they would then rebel in facts. Andrew Carnegie made the wonderful observation that under American law in the Philippines, when we were the we were taking over there, it would be illegal to be to display the Declaration of Independence on the wall, because that said that when this authority becomes tyrannical, it's the right of people to overthrow it. And we were not allowing anyone in the Philippines to say that. So The argument before the Supreme Court was, as it was often reduced down to, does the constitution follow the flag. If we establish rule over faraway territories, don't the people there have the right to free speech and due process of law, they can't be tortured, they can't have their homes invaded, they have to be able to allow Bob to have free newspapers and so forth. So the court finally his series of decisions, these are known as the insular cases because it had to do with islands decided that no, the Constitution does not follow the flag. And in fact, there might be countries and territories that are not ready for constitutional democracy yet, that insular a series of insular cases was decided by a five to four vote.

SK

Stephen Kinzer

5:56

That was against such a closed margin. And the Justice who wrote the majority opinion, had recently a few years earlier written the majority opinion, in the plessy versus ferguson case, that was the case in which the Supreme Court decided black people didn't have all the rights that white people had in America. So in that sense, it was the decision, the insular case was consistent. If you believe there are certain people inside the United States who don't deserve as many rights as some other people inside United States because of the color of their skin. You could certainly also believe that there would be people on the other side of the world who we govern, but we don't have to give rights to because we don't think they're ready to appreciate those rights. So that was the great result of the 1899 debate the ratification of the Treaty of Paris, as the devastating realization on the part of anti imperialist that the United States was now a colonial power.

JH

Joseph Hawthorne

7:02

And so I really love that you mentioned, Andrew Carnegie and also in Plessy, versus Ferguson, you know, the whole kind of politics that are happening together. So zooming in a little bit more, especially because Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain are featured on the front of your book, who were the anti imperialist? And how did the politics of imperialism shape on to other politics going on at the time, I'm thinking about reconsider that not reconstruction anymore. But I'm thinking about, you know, debates about Jim Crow about segregation. Where did politics of empire fit in larger US politics,

SK

Stephen Kinzer

7:41

it definitely fit into the reformist drive in the second half of the 19th century in the United States. As that movement developed over a period of decades, it had three main goals abolitionism, anti imperialism, and women's suffrage. Those were the three great goals that were shared by an entire class of Americans, actually, many of them based in New England. It's not an accident, that a number of people who emerged in the anti imperialist movement had been abolitionists, the first head of the NAACP, who had been governor of Massachusetts, emerged as the first president of the anti imperialist league. So there are a lot of links. So when we look at the explosion of anti imperialist enthusiasm at the end of the 19th century, we can see it as something like a mirror of the explosion of abolitionism decades earlier, there was a sense that we found a great blot on the American Dream on the American ideal first block was slavery. And that was eliminated as a result of the Civil War, the next step, because history thrusted upon us was abolitionism. I'm sorry, it was anti imperialism, and that was going on at the same time as the women's suffrage movement. So the anti imperialists in a sense, we're all fogies. They were the conservatives are today, saying that the United States should not be meddling in the affairs of countries all over the world is thought of as kind of a leftist idea or progressive, but actually, it's liberal utopianism. That tells you the United States has the best ideas for everybody in the world, and we should go out and help change the world. True conservatism tells you Well, maybe we don't really know what's best for the Philippines, so we should just mind our own business. So the anti imperialist We're actually harking back to an earlier age. They wanted a simpler America. It was the imperialists who were the dynamic young force. Later on some of the anti imperialist thought that part of their problem was that they were anti something. They're always against something Americans don't like that you want to be in favor of something that's expansionist, and big and new and daring. So maybe in a way, the anti imperialist were out of step with an America that suddenly during 1898 exploded with this aggressive fervor. However, let me add a little caveat here. Many historians of that era have suggested an interesting aspect of the Treaty of Paris debate. So that treaty was the treaty by which Spain essentially gave up all of its pretensions to Empire in the Caribbean, and in the Pacific. And the United States assumed all of those. However, some historians have said that, if that treaty that went before the Senate was only about taking the Philippines, if rejecting it, would not have required the United States to renounce control of Cuban Puerto Rico, maybe it would not have been ratified. Maybe it was a clever idea of Henry Cabot Lodge, and other supporters of American expansionism to lump all of those expansions together into one treaty. So that it would seem that if the Senate voted against it was rejecting the entire idea of American power, even 90 miles from our doorstep if it had been separated. And the question was, only should the United States take those thousands of islands in the South Pacific that we've never heard of called the Philippines. Maybe, according to many historians, the Senate might have acted different.

JH

Joseph Hawthorne

11:58

Interesting. Yeah, I hadn't thought specifically about that before. But that is a great transition to talk about the Philippines a little bit more specifically. So we're not going to get too much into the brutal forever war that occupies or that rather, guard states invades the Philippines and proceeds to launch a kind of parallel to Iraq or Vietnam. We're not going to get into the details of that. That is to say, it was a brutal war. And back in the US. dissent does not end in 1899. So anti imperialist, the kind of almost the old abolitionists continue to fight back. So moving into the election 1900. What's the dynamic there? It's a rematch between two former rivals, but what's going on in 1900,

SK

Stephen Kinzer

12:49

there was a great shift in American opinion, I think, in 1899 to 1900. As I said, the beginnings of the war were accompanied by a unanimous enthusiasm. Later on, there were some doubts about whether the political resolution was correct or not. But then, particularly during 1899, and into 1900, the Americans began getting horrific reports about what was happening in the Philippines. We were told something like what we were told when we invaded Iraq in 2003. They're going to greet us with flowers, they're going to be so happy to have us here. And this is such a perfect example of the American attitude. Our view was, of course, the Filipinos hated being dominated by Spain. Spain is evil state is cruel man is brutal. They are gonna love to be dominated by us, because we're so different. It never occurred to us that from the Filipino perspective, we're just another foreign occupier. So, Filipinos did not accept the American decision to absorb their country, a war emerged, and reports of that war and the way it was being fought, made their way back into the United States. For a time there was military censorship of press reports, a number of reporters had their articles shipped out to Hong Kong, so that can be telegraphed home. After a while military censorship began to break down and was ultimately lifted. That led to many reports of atrocities. In addition, a lot of soldiers who are serving in the Philippines wrote letters home about things that they had done, and their parents back home set have printed those letters in newspapers. So there became a big backlash, really, we had our first torture scandal, as it became clear that American soldiers were systematically shooting and torturing and Filipino civilians. This was made Clear by letter after letter being written on by soldiers, not to mention reports written by journalists, the signature torture of that war was something called the water cure. It's very similar to the waterboarding that you read about in Guantanamo and other American bases. And the way it is you force water down someone's throat, and then you jump on their stomach until they die, or they talk to their various permutations of it. While I was researching this, I began to ask myself, so what Where did that come from? Where what is waterboarding are the water torture or the water cure? as it was called in the Philippines? Well, it turns out that Americans have never used this. If you look at the wars that were fought against the Indians. You don't see this torture. And many of the officers that the United States sent to the Philippines had their previous experience fighting Indians in the Midwest. Those were they brought the techniques that they used against the Indians, to the Philippines, but they never use this water boarding water charger they did in the Philippines. What happened? Well, I figured out the answer. So that water torture actually originated in the Spanish Inquisition, was used to torture religious heretics.

SK

Stephen Kinzer

16:26

So Spanish soldiers began to learn it. They brought into the Philippines when the Philippines was a Spanish colony. Filipino tribes that were allied with the Spanish, then learned it. They taught it to Americans, Americans used it in the Philippines. It then became part of the American toolkit, and it still is the that's how the Philippines Philippines plays a real role in this continuum of water torture. The existence of this torture and others was quite shocking to Americans. And I think in a way, it was a loss of innocence. It was the beginning of Americans shrugging their shoulders and saying, you know, I guess if these people are savages and backward, we have to do this. And the pressure was so great for an investigation of this, that the Senate had to agree to form an investigating committee to look into allegations of torture and the way the war was being conducted in the Philippines. Henry Cabot Lodge, the great set it promoter of that war could not stop the formation of that committee. But he did the next best thing. He got himself named to be the chairman of the committee. First thing that he did was cut down the witness list. So no anti imperialists were allowed to testify. And then he decided that since the room where the hearings are going to be held with so small, unfortunately, there wouldn't be any room for the press, he. Therefore, the whole set of hearings was a whitewash and they committee never even issued a report. But the the torture scandal in the Philippines, and the realization by Americans, that when we push our power into other countries, they're going to be a lot of people that are not going to like it set the stage for an American consciousness with which we're still living today.

JH

Joseph Hawthorne

18:20

And that is a great transition for me to ask you the million dollar question, which is, why does this period matter for today? How did it influence us or the world that we live in today?

SK

Stephen Kinzer

18:33

It's everything. It's the beginning of everything. Think back to 1898, our seizure of those islands, and then the debate over whether we should ratify the treaty that certified we would become their permanent owners. If we had decided differently, if a couple of senators have voted the other way. Or if one Supreme Court Justice had voted the other way, and ruled that colonialism was unconstitutional. The United States might have turned inward, we might have decided that all that glut, all that surplus production, all that extra wealth inside the United States could be used to raise up the whole population of the United States. We could have been the exemplars of a new approach to the world by great powers, which would have been we encourage all to become independent. As we did follow the example of the United States ridding yourself of rule by foreign colonial powers find your own way in the world. We would have seal the image of the United States as Washington and the founders imagined it as the exemplar and creature of liberty to the world, we were going to be the exceptional nation, the nation that didn't behave like the corrupt European powers. Instead, we succumb to the Imperial temptations, it doesn't make us unique. In fact, the opposite is true. It puts us in the same path as so many powers before us. The only difference is that we thought we were going to be unique and follow a different path. It was George Washington, who in his farewell address, made the wonderful statement, why quit our own to stand on foreign soil. When he said that in the same address, he added a very poignant ending in which he essentially said, now that I told you not to get involved in foreign alliances, and to realize that we need to concentrate on our own good and not be manipulated by foreign interests. He says, I know you're not going to listen to. And it only was he right in the advice that he gave us. But he was right that we weren't going to listen to him. So to me, the moment when we confronted this question, are we going to be stuck in the George Washington age, or 100 years later? Are we going to forget that and realize that what Washington had to say, and what Lincoln had to say about a government of the people, by the people and for the people was for another age, and now that we're about to enter this glorious 20th century, we're going to leave that behind and transform America, whether or not that was a good idea was exactly what these people were debating in 1898, in 1898, and the outcome of that debate, the term and everything that has happened since including the way we find ourselves sitting in the world, right at this month,

JH

Joseph Hawthorne

22:04

and I think that it's a pretty brilliant way to end it. But I want to push back, almost against my better judgment. And, you know, something that I've been reading a few places, and I was thinking about the long time presidential loser, William Jennings Bryan, who lost to McKinley at 96, in 1900. And he lost when he was kind of running on anti imperialism. Do you think that there was actually ever a chance for America to, you know, kind of go down a better path? Or was it kind of inevitable that if they didn't pass the Treaty of Paris, then imperialists would find some other way to win an election to ratify a treaty? You know, do you think that ideal was actually achievable?

SK

Stephen Kinzer

22:49

So historians are trained not to deal in counterfactuals. Fortunately, I'm not a story. So I'm allowed to do that. I think it's possible to make the argument that the United States was in such a frenzy in such a mood in 1898, that it was a freight train, public opinion was not going to be able to stop. On the other hand, no clear alternative was presented in the political sphere, I blame Brian for not wanting to focus his entire electoral campaign on anti imperialism and for getting caught up in this crazy free silver idea that essentially destroyed his chances of defeating McKinley. So I wonder myself, given the character of the American people, and this Andrew Jackson idea that we just go out and take what we want, and then later on, we'll figure out a way to make it legal is very powerful, the American soul mericans don't like to think about things. We don't like to understand things. We like to do things. And I given that tread election. I wonder if it would have been possible under another president to have taken another path? I I have to believe Yes, I have to think there was another option, I have to believe that the decisions of individuals make a difference. But in this case, certainly, at the middle of 1898, there was an explosion of factors. If I can use that word, bearing in mind the USS Maine tragedy that pushed Americans at least momentarily, into a very aggressive move. Another President might have been able to ride that out and and master it. But at that time, even McKinley, who was not in themselves an eager imperialist, like Lodge and Roosevelt, since that this was the way he had to go. No McKinley was the classic consensus politician. All he wanted to know was, where is the American people, where are the voters? That's where I'm going to be and he decided in the end Quite reluctantly in a way to become involved in these wars, that's perhaps the best sign you can have. That that moment, pushing the idea of American expansion overseas seemed like a great idea. If the vote could have been postponed for a short time, Americans might have come down. But in a moment of frenzy, we entered into a path that we're still debating.

JH

Joseph Hawthorne

25:27

Yeah, I think it's a good point to that, you know, to really understand the time period of which I encourage everyone to do and to buy the true flag and everything else like that. But the point is, is that to understand the time period, like the vote in the Treaty of Paris, was being signed and debated as gunshots were just beginning in Manila, in what would become the Philippine American war. So there's a lot going on in a very short period of time. the very final thing that I wanted to ask you about, which I think is appropriate, because it's on the front of your book about Mark Twain and Roosevelt, can you briefly talk about the rivalry between the two of them personally,

SK

Stephen Kinzer

26:04

Roosevelt and Mark Twain were great enemies in this battle over imperialism. Mark Twain, I always had this image of as a kind of nice humorous, like your gentle grandfather, that's kind of nutty, but he has great stories, and he rocks on the front porch. But actually, that was not Mark Twain. He was bitterly anti imperialist. He thought the United States flag should be redesigned after what we did in the Philippines, and that we should replace the stars with skull and crossbones. And he had some confrontations with Roosevelt. However, in certain ways, they were similar that basically, they were both showman. They both created an image, the image of Theodore Roosevelt as the Wild West man went to fight foreign wars. It's all a fake. Basically, he's just a rich New York rich kid. And Mark Twain also had this persona with his white suits walking up and down on Sundays to be here to be seen. And either one of them could ever turn away from a camera or a mirror or an interviewer. So although they were great opponents, in many ways and a lot in code, maybe that's why they were great opponents. One of the things I really learned doing this book was how intensely Mark Twain detested all the ideas that Theodore Roosevelt stood for. And in a sense, they epitomize generations to Mark Twain was an old guy who didn't want the lead states to get involved in crazy new projects. Roosevelt was young and dynamic and wanted every crazy new project for himself. So they were wonderfully matched antagonists, then I was happy to see that the cover of a book shows them kind of pointing at each other because at least philosophically, that's what they were doing.

JH

Joseph Hawthorne

27:57

Yeah, there of course, I think there's one or two actual moments where they're in the same room and kind of tensely facing off but I like the the quote, he probably heard of it about Theodore Roosevelt wanting to be the bride every wedding and the corpse every funeral. I feel like that's a pretty good way to describe him.

SK

Stephen Kinzer

28:15

I think they're both like that. Both of them love the tension and imperialism was the perfect issue.

JH

Joseph Hawthorne

28:21

Exactly. Thank you again, Steven. It's been a real pleasure. That is all for today.